Monthly Archives: May 2015

How To Water Mature Trees

When drought strikes, it’s tempting to cut back on watering of established trees or stop watering altogether. And maybe water restrictions in your area force your hand. I hate to see it happen, because trees can offer many benefits – most notably shade for homes to cut down on energy use, and shade for other plants to keep them alive and in need of less water. Of course, you can’t beat the enjoyment of sitting under the shade of your favorite tree. I won’t even get into how depressing it is to see dying trees in front lawns…

Ideally, your lawn has only native trees, and especially xeric varieties. In that case, the trees adapt to conditions more easily. Some survive on rainwater alone, but most need a deep watering about once a month during the heat of summer.

desert willow tree xeric

The desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a perfect xeric tree for warm to hot desert climates. This one is from a Tucson, Arix., garden.

To water your a mature tree that requires irrigation, avoid a common mistake — watering only near the trunk. Trees do not have tap roots, but instead have a root system that extends out from the tree, more or less mirroring and extending just past, the tree’s branches above. So, when you set out your hose or set up a drip or soaker system, begin near the trunk, and then work your way out to the edges of the tree’s canopy. Scroll down in this handout on caring for trees from Colorado State University for a photo of a soaker hose layout.

To water deeply, you have to water slowly. That means setting your hose or irrigation system to deliver the water at a lower rate for a longer period of time. To reach the roots, the water needs to penetrate the ground to at least 12 inches. If you’ve ever seen roots growing at ground level, they’re probably doing so because the tree is receiving too little or too shallow watering.

Don’t dig a hole around the tree to help get water to go down deeper. The hole allows air in and dries out roots!

If possible, avoid using a sprinkler to water trees. In addition to producing shallower roots, the sprinkler wastes water by dispersing it into the air, where it evaporates. And some trees are subject to leaf diseases from constant watering. The only time I ever spray a tree or bush is if it has aphids, and I give it a fine-water spray in early morning to wash the aphids off.

If you can’t reach a tree with your hose, you can drill a few holes in a 5-gallon bucket and carry it out to your tree. The water will flow more slowly through the hole than if you pour the water on the ground. Move the bucket out and around the tree’s base with each refill.

apple tree along river.

This apple tree is hard to reach with the hose, but we don’t water it because it is along the river bank and the roots take up plenty of water. This year, it had twice as many blooms and may give us some fruit. Trees can help preserve water sheds.

If you want to save tap or well water, reuse! Direct roof water to a tree using the downspout and a dry river bed. Save shower water in 5-gallon buckets (with no holes – you have to get them outside!) but only use the water that flows while the shower warms up, not any soapy flow.

If you have other clear water to dispose, such as kid or dog pools, empty the water onto tree roots instead of a random place in the yard.

Another Reason to Plant Natives: No Soil Amendment Needed

Where I live in New Mexico, the soil is more alkaline than acidic. That means I might as well forget ever trying to grow blueberries, but asparagus is a great choice. We even found some old or wild stalks along our ditch bank last year.

And a soil’s pH balance is just one consideration. Soil texture and drainage are especially important to a plant’s success in a vegetable, herb or ornamental garden. If we didn’t add some organic matter to our vegetable garden each year, the soil would compact from foot traffic and lose nutrients from its work feeding plants. So each year, we work the soil with mushroom compost to keep it rich, water absorbent and well draining.

amended soil for vegetables and herbs

This is part of our ornamental garden, amended with organic matter to grow edibles this year.

Native plants

I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – rework my ornamental garden soil each year. For one, it would be nuts to dig up perennial plants! So gardeners often are advised to add a little bit of compost to the hole dug for a new tree, bush or flowering plant. The compost enriches the soil around the roots, and as long as you water as suggested in the first year or so of more rapid growth and root set, the plant should thrive. But what happens as the plant grows beyond your amendment, especially if you put in a rapidly growing shrub or tree? Eventually, the roots work their way into the soil you haven’t amended. If the soil is so poor or compacted that the roots can’t break through or thrive, the plant could be stressed at the least.

If you choose a native plant, especially for a xeric garden, it’s likely that you won’t have to amend the soil at all. A plant that is adapted to your area’s typical soil makeup will do better if you just loosen the soil around it, usually to an area at least three times larger than the root ball. No need to add anything.

chocolate flower in New Mexico rock garden

The chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) is a native to our region. It crops up from seed around our garden and lawn. And yes, the blooms smell like chocolate! That’s a rosemary in the right foreground.

If plant instructions, or one article or expert tell you to add to the soil, it helps to verify the information with another source. That’s especially true if installing a native plant in your xeric garden. And it’s even truer depending on the first source of advice. There are plenty of reputable sources, and then there are myths, many of which can be perpetuated by those who stand to profit.

lavender in rocky soil

We placed several lavender plants in one of our beds, and maybe should have tested the soil first. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean, where the soil is rocky and alkaline. So it grows well here, but this soil had compacted more than we realized.That and some some cool, wet weather gave our plants a rocky start! Lesson learned.

When amending

It’s also good to check local sources when amending soil. For example, you might hear that adding sand improves drainage, but if you add too little sand, or add sand to clay soil, you can make matters worse, and your soil sets up like concrete. Oh, those poor plant roots…

Most organic matter is good for soil, but plenty of myths abound there as well. For example, manure needs to cook down or compost with brown materials before throwing it on your vegetables. Wood ash is often touted as an amendment, but not in New Mexico, where the soil already is alkaline. Wood ashes also are high in salt. I talked about Epsom salts in a previous post. The bottom line? Get local advice from a few good sources, and if you go with native xeric selections, you probably won’t have to amend the soil unless you have a severely compacted or poorly draining area.

 

A Trip to Hondo Iris Farm

It’s hard to imagine that an ornamental with such a strong, tall stalk and such large, gorgeous and multicolored blooms could be a low- to medium-water plant. But once established, the iris can get by and bloom with little care and water.

bearded iris

A lavender-colored bearded iris with morning dew.

When we visited Portland several years ago, we stopped by a magnificent iris farm and I couldn’t stop taking photos or making a wish list of colors and cultivars. But I couldn’t have known then that I would soon live about 15 to 20 minutes from a pretty magnificent iris garden, even though I’d be in the drier, cooler climate of southeastern New Mexico.

I visited the Hondo Iris Farm for the second time last week, this time with friends from Ruidoso. The flowers were in full bloom, and it was a beautiful spring day. The farm is stocked with impressive rows of more than 400 iris varieties. I found myself once again snapping photo after photo and wishing I had more space and water for flowers in my yard!

rows of iris

A few of the rows of iris at the Hondo Iris Farm, which hit full bloom around Mother’s Day each year.

What also impressed me about this visit was the fact that the Hondo Iris Farm grows plenty of low-water plants native to the Hondo Valley and nearby Ruidoso. I spotted several trees and ornamentals familiar to me, along with displays of several succulents. The farm sells several plants from a small greenhouse on the property that will thrive locally.

agave at iris garden

Agave garden at Hondo Iris farm. A red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria) adds color in the background, as do several iris!

If it’s iris you’re after, you can place your order from a catalog in the farm’s gift shop or by viewing it online. You might not be able to buy the very iris you drool after on your visit; they limit their catalog to about 50 or 60 cultivars each year. Still, it’s a great selection and price. I ordered a few for July delivery. Later this summer, I’ll divide my iris to move some to the back yard and make room for my new bulbs!

Hondo Iris Farm garden sculpture

We enjoyed the Hondo Iris Farm for the iris, native plants and general layout and beauty.

The Hondo Iris Farm is on Hwy 70 in southeastern New Mexico at mile marker 284. It’s just west of the small town of Hondo and the intersection of highways 70 and 380, about 20 minutes from Ruidoso and less than 40 minutes from Roswell. Admission is free to the garden, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 am to 5 pm.

Growing Edibles in Containers

Growing an edible garden makes great sense – you use water to produce food, and it’s food that can’t get any fresher or more local! Growing food in pots and other containers can be even more rewarding, especially for gardeners who have limited space, problems with critters or who want their herbs and vegetables close at hand.

lettuce and tomatillo plants in containers

Lettuce is a great container plant. The one in the foreground had tomatillos, just for fun, not so much for yield.

Rosemary, basil, lettuce and cherry or grape tomatoes are my favorite edibles to have right near my kitchen door. But I’ve been known to push the boundaries a little, once growing an okra plant in a small container (admittedly mostly for the flower) and a large pot of carrots last year. We’re upping the ante with an even bigger carrot crop, but more on that in a future post…

carrots

Here’s our dancing carrot, or rather two carrots, grown in crowded container conditions last year.

Here’s the thing – containers can take a little more water during hot summer months, but you also can confine your crop, so to speak. I believe that container-grown edibles are less susceptible to some bugs and soil-borne problems. And I love that I can move the containers to control sun exposure as the conditions change. Most of all, you just can’t beat the convenience of herbs and vegetables just outside your kitchen door at meal times.

Here are a few tips for making your container edibles fun and productive:

  • First, it can be tempting to fill your containers with soil from your garden. Resist the temptation and spend the money on some good commercial potting mix. I use organic composts and potting mixes. The reason? Ground soil compacts when confined to a pot. This makes it harder for water to drain and for roots to grow.
  • Choose your container to fit the plant’s mature size. It might look less attractive at first, but the reward of juicy tomatoes is worth your patience!
grape tomato in container

This yellow grape tomato was great for snacking right on the patio all summer.

  • If the container is particularly large, you can line the bottom with pebbles or plastic bottles to encourage drainage and use some yard or garden soil for fill. But keep it to a minimum, and make sure the soil that the plant’s roots touch is the best possible mix.
  • A few herbs are grown better in containers for their own special reasons. I like to have a small basil or rosemary on my patio table throughout the summer for the appearance, scent and convenience. And then there is mint – which should only grow in containers unless you really love it and want to replace everything else in your lawn, your neighbor’s lawn, your town… with mint. And it comes in lemon, orange or chocolate varieties to enjoy on the patio or balcony.
  • Many container-grown plants require fertilizer because the soil doesn’t have the same natural nutrients as garden soil. But use it judiciously and according to the individual plant. For example, chile peppers typically need no fertilizer. If you start with healthy soil, you need less, and if you use it too often or at the wrong time, you’ll force more growth into the foliage and get a plant that outgrows your container and gets too lanky to support its fruit.
  • Usually, you have to water container-grown plants more often, but not always. Don’t assume that when a plant wilts, lack of water is the cause. And that’s the beauty of containers – try moving the plant to the shade on hot days, or move all of them there if you have to be away for the weekend. They’ll survive better on your pre-departure watering until you return.
  • Remember that you can add mulch to containers, just as you do in flower beds. Decorative mulch can offset the look of an edible in a container, such as crushed seashells under chard. Mulch also serves a practical purpose. Those white seashells or pebbles can reflect sun back up to your potted lavender or bark chips can hold moisture in to conserve water and keep plants cool.

And if you love being creative and repurposing, go ahead and push the limits. You might end up with lower productivity from your edible, or need more total containers, but it’s fun to place edibles in a few fun or funky containers. If I want more yield, I duplicate the seeds or transplant in the ground or a larger container. That way, I get the aesthetic pleasure and practical returns.

spinach in metal container

We found this old metal bucket at my in-laws’ ranch and planted some spinach in it.

Use Plant Finders and Identifiers to Plan Your Xeric Garden

So you want to plan a xeric garden, or begin converting your garden to a low-water design. It can seem overwhelming at first. You can call in a xeric landscaping professional, especially for a big job. But to make small changes, you mostly need help finding good replacements. For example, what’s a low-water plant with red blooms that enjoys a mix of sun and shade?

Enter a plant finder. Most let you select any number of fields or filters, and many also provide searches in both common and botanical names.

deep red iris bloom

OK, so we all know this is an iris. That’s all I know so far, because it bloomed for the first time a week ago. I just had to include a photo of it in some post.

Plant identification tools also help, but I find they work best if they have several photos – at least one close-up shot of foliage and flowers, and another full shot of the plant. You’ll use identification often if you pay attention to plants as you drive around your town or neighborhood, or spot a great specimen in a friend’s lawn. Your friend may have no idea of the plant’s name. Here is a short list of plant ID and plant finder sources:

Identify Plants Online

One of my favorite Southwest sources for xeric and high-desert selections just added a plant finder. Plant Select provides a dozen fields, including water needs and deer resistance, important considerations for me.

plant Select plant finder

Screen shot of the Plant Select plant finder. It’s got plenty of filters to help you plan your xeric garden.

The National Gardening Association also includes an extensive plant finder on its site, which lets you select USDA zone.

Finally, for a more scientific approach, go to the USDA site. I’ve had more luck there with the scientific name, but that’s pretty easy to find with a good online search of a plant’s common name.

Plant Identification Apps

I love plant ID apps, because I always have my phone with me in the garden. The problem is tracking down good one with Southwest plants. So far, the only one I’ve found that’s free, dedicated to xeriscaping and accurate for my area is SW Plants. It’s from New Mexico State University. If anyone out there knows of a better one for xeriscaping, I welcome input!

SW plants plant finder

SW Plants app on my phone. The search works well for the 750 xeric plants included.

 

SW plants app zinnia photo

The photos in the SW Plants app are pretty nice, but small on my phone.

In addition, Audubon has apps for wildflowers and trees. Otherwise, as in most cases, content comes from and focuses on the northeastern and southeastern portions of the country…

Remember Books?

We have some gardening books. In fact, a shelf of our sitting room is lined with them. And I often can identify a plant by consulting several of them. Sure, sometimes a Google search is quicker, but it’s too hard to rely on images posted by people using common names to identify a plant. So it might be a good place to start, but books local to your area are best. My favorites for this area are the Sunset Western Garden Book (keeping in mind that Sunset assigns its own zones) and Judith Philips’ New Mexico Gardener’s Guide. Any book on native plants and wildflowers for your state or region is priceless as well.

shelf of gardening books

Got gardening books? Many books have older, dull photos or illustrations, so check out photos before buying.

Keep Current Catalogs

Catalogs are excellent resources, especially for planning your garden each year! We save a few of the most recent from our favorite suppliers, and often can either identify a plant we already have or see somewhere nearby, or plan our garden each spring with the catalog’s help. They have the best photos, if you’re willing to spend time leafing through pages. It’s one of our favorite activities with coffee on spring mornings!

I recently helped a friend identify a gorgeous wildflower she spotted on a hike in Los Alamos, using a combination of our catalog from Plants of the Southwest and an online search. Our other favorite catalog arrives regularly from High Country Gardens.

Another Reason to Weed Your Garden: Water Savings

If you’re like me, you hate the sight of weeds in your ornamental or vegetable garden, and you have permanently discolored cuticles from April through September.

Weeds are more than unsightly, however. Ask any farmer, who knows that weeds can reduce their crop yields by at least 50 percent by simply robbing crops of water. Although weeds can seemingly grow out of rocks, parched dirt or sand, they still compete with surrounding plants for water. Weeds also host bugs and diseases and can block sun or air circulation to important plants. For example, if a tall weed shades your bell pepper plant, the plant is less able to compete for water and nutrients and less likely to produce as many peppers. Some weeds even introduce chemicals that are toxic to certain plants, animals and people.

Weed growing in middle of sage

This culinary sage has a weed growing up through the middle of it. The weed’s tap root likely steals rain water from the sage.

Are you hating weeds as much as I do yet? There are those who tout their benefits. A few weeds provide nectar for bees or help supply organic matter to soil. And as I’ve mentioned before, there is a fine line between weeds and wildflowers. Our widespread alyssum invasion each spring adds early color and brings hundreds of bees to our land.

Further, several weeds are edible. Examples that come to mind are dandelions and purslane. But I really prefer carrots and cucumbers.

According to Robert Parker, Ph.D., of Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension Center, it’s more important to control weeds during drought than during typical years. And some common weeds consume more water than typical crops. An example is Russian thistle, which Parker said removed nearly 18 gallons of water per plant while competing with a spring wheat crop. The thistle is just one of the weeds we are trying to attack here on our property and a priority throughout Lincoln County, N.M.

thistle weed

This thistle (to the upper left of Buster) is growing in our ditch, along with a horehound and numerous other weeds. I need to grub it before it goes to seed.

Parker says that crops are most affected by weeds during early growth. So home gardeners are best served by prepping their gardens carefully to start out with a clean slate and to handpick weeds until their backs give out. Seriously, it’s always best to keep weeds under control without chemicals if possible. That’s especially true during a drought, because most herbicides require water to work effectively.

In fact, weeds are the ultimate native plant! They adapt to drought by developing ways to retain moisture in their tap roots or waxy layers on leaves. When drought affects grass growth on rangelands, more weeds move in and establish squatters’ rights. That’s what seems to have happened to us. We now have a proliferation of several weeds, and especially horehound (Marrubium vulgare).  Horehound grows best in dry soil, and I’ve seen it growing in the worst places possible.

horehound

Horehound, which is considered a good plant or an awful weed.

From what I can tell, horehound spreads by seed, but also has runner-type roots and maybe spreads just by magic. It’s in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Need I say more about its invasive qualities? And although a noxious weed in some areas, horehound also is considered one of those “good” weeds, having both medicinal properties and use as an edible for tea or candy. But I point to the “vulgare” portion of its name. If it continues to take over our grass, I might give in and learn how to make the vulgar weed into candy, which apparently tastes like licorice.

horehound spreading

Horehound mowed down to prevent seeding, like that will help. It is taking over this grassy area.

Most likely, we are going to require herbicide at some point. By the way, the horehound noxious weed spread began when it was introduced to ornamental gardens. I’m all for growing edibles, but why not mint in a container?

Low-water Plants that Hummingbirds Love

As soon as hummingbirds start buzzing around the garden, many locals put out their feeders. I have tried one this year, only because I had few plants blooming when the hummers arrived. I prefer to feed the hummingbirds with natural plants because of time, mess and the fact that native plants seem healthier for the birds and way more fun for us!

hummingbird on agastache

Hummingbird on agastache in our garden in 2013. Photo by David Higgins.

There are many rules about hummingbird food safety, and I worry I will forget, be gone, etc. But there are so many plants hummingbirds love that we already have in our garden or can add to attract more birds. We especially love to watch the male hummers’ courtship dives from our back patio, and I am certain that a few male birds have claimed our rock garden, or some portion of it, as their territory each summer.

To naturally attract hummingbirds and enjoy the same plants they use as nourishment, choose plants with brightly colored and tubular flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted by color, not scent. Red is their favorite, but purple, yellow, orange and pink also bring them to plants. And in addition to tubular flowers, try plants with blooms that nod, or bend downward slightly. Of course, continuous blooming also helps.

Here are a few xeric hummingbird favorites:

Agastache (Agastache cana). This xeric rare wildflower has bright pink flowers on upright stems all summer, and some, such as Texas hummingbird mint, are aromatic as a bonus for humans. There are other many variations of agastache, also called hyssop, in varying purples, oranges, pinks and reds, that attract hummingbirds with their slender, tubular flowers.

agastache cana

Agasatache cana Sinning, also called Sunset Sonora Hyssop is a compact Agastache cana from Plant Select. Image is by Diana Reavis and from Plant Select.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia). Butterflies share this purple-flowered favorite with hummingbirds. The spiked flowers appear at the end of the branches and can be from eight to more than 12 inches long.

Autumn or cherry sage (Salvia gregii). The salvia has bright pink, raspberry-colored flowers on a low bush all summer long. The low- to medium- water plant can grow in nearly any soil.

salvia gregii

Two cherry or autumn sages in a rock garden, just coming into bloom. Hummingbirds love the bright pink flowers.

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). This is the tree I miss the most since moving to a colder zone, although I might try it here soon. The beautiful xeric tree can be trained to grow wild and bushy or more tree-like. But its charm to hummingbirds and humans is the large tubular flowers that come in light and dark pink colors.

desert willow flowers

Hummingbirds love the orchid-like flowers of the xeric Desert willow, or Chilopsis. Image by R.A. Howard © Smithsonian Institution, Richard A. Howard Photograph Collection.

Other hummingbird favorites that might grow in the mountains, high deserts and xeric landscape that attract hummingbirds are some types of columbine, some bulbs, such as Crocosmia, and every variety of penstemon. And I imagine you can’t go wrong with a plant I have never tried, but is aptly named “Hummingbird Plant” (Zauschneria Californica), a medium-water, full-sun plant that has scarlet-orange flowers. It will require extra watering for a year or two until established, but grows to more than two feet in height.

Social Media Memes: Gardening Fact or Fiction?

Call me a skeptic. It’s OK, because I am one. I always have been. And I prefer to investigate claims, especially those I see on television or social media. The more often I see a social media gardening claim, the less likely I am to believe its validity.

When I write posts for Gardening in a Drought, I use my personal experience, master gardener training and lots of other sources – books I value and credible websites. If I’m uncertain about a site’s credibility, I always try to verify the information. And most of the information I rely on comes from university extension offices. They’re the source for research-based advice for farmers and homeowners. When it comes to growing food in particular, I’ll take research over pins and “likes” any day of the week.

Don’t get me wrong – I love social media platforms! But I use social media to generate ideas and avenues I want to explore. I don’t consider a post or pin originated by a virtual stranger to be the expert word, the final say. And even posts and pins from more credible sources can be problematic. For example, an article might tout the “Best perennials for shade,” but have its origin in a Georgia newspaper. The rainfall and soil in Georgia differ markedly from here in New Mexico. I need a list a little more specific to my conditions. And that’s just one of the problems I have with some of the social media memes and myths. Here are a few examples:

Epsom salt

This is the biggest meme of all. When my husband and I discussed that the entire Epsom salt craze must have been started by savvy Epsom salt marketers, I felt ashamed, as if my jaded skepticism had reached a new low. And then I just felt vindicated (so much sweeter). First, I found a pin touting the miracle “salt,” which is really a mix of mostly magnesium and sulphur for soaking feet, as a way to make “all of your blooms more vibrant, healthier, greener, thicker, etc…” Can I just add an editor’s aside here? There is hyperbole, and then there are errors in use of adjectives. Well, I guess it is an error only if you have a bloom color other than green. And right now, I cannot think of a plant with green blooms…

OK, sorry. The pin to which I referred linked to … you guessed it … a company that sells Epsom salt. And the product now lines the walls of the local Walmart when you walk inside. What a racket! I have decided to begin touting the benefits of yellow alyssum seeds “to make tomatoes juicier, redder, rounder and larger.” I could make them greener too, I guess.

bag of Epsom salt

Tim bought a bag of the salts to try to help get rid of some tree stumps. It didn’t really help, and I kept thinking: How could something that kills tree stumps be good for tomatoes?

Anyway, the truth is this: Epsom salts really do nothing for any plant or soil in your garden (link to my Resources page for a few sources). If you have super-acidic soil, which is uncommon anyway, it would be better to amend the soil with dolomitic lime than with Epsom salt. And it certainly is not the way to go in New Mexico, where soil tends to be alkaline. In fact, Epsom salt can do more harm than good.

Household vinegar kills weeds

I’m guilty of picking up on the household vinegar meme. And even household vinegar can weaken weeds to some extent. But the truth is, for vinegar to be truly effective on weeds, it needs to be 20 percent acetic acid. This is not your typical household white or apple cider vinegar.

What you need to really achieve control is the higher concentration acetic acid vinegar solution that is approved for use as an herbicide. It is available commercially in some formulas and from certain local or state agencies. We filled about 10 gallon-jugs at the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District office a few weeks ago and used their formula to mix it with water and dish soap.

For the most part, the acetic acid weakened, or at least stopped the growth of, many weeds. It’s not selective, however, so if you target a dandelion in the grass, you get dead, brown grass around it if in the spray. In addition, vinegar isn’t a systemic herbicide; in other words, it kills leaves but doesn’t work down to the roots. But I think the acetic acid solution can work well in gravel walkways and along rock walls or paver edges, the areas where grass and weeds poke through. Spray on a warm, sunny day and repeat again as needed. If you want to try the household vinegar on small weeds, you might have some success, but it’s probably better mixed with baking soda as a cleanser!

weed killed by acetic acid

The acetic acid formula really did destroy or weaken some weeds, but notice the bindweed peeking into the frame. Of course, I am not sure if anything can kill bindweed.

Use of corn meal to stop weeds from geminating is another myth based on a similar, but commercial product. The bottom line? Take social media advice with a grain of, well, salt. And always check to see if it’s accurate and pertinent for your garden soil and climate. Your best sources are local master gardeners and extension offices, or the best gardeners on your block!

Favorite Xeric Plant: Ornamental Grass

When xeriscaping, you can add plenty of interest with varied textures and heights by including a few ornamental grasses in your landscape. We’re always tempted to think first about flower color, but less about interesting foliage. Placing a few ornamental grasses in a xeric landscape or container can add nearly as much impact as a pop of purple with less watering and maintenance.

Choose an ornamental grass that is native to your area, or a similar climate or condition, in place of a shrub or perennial flower. One of my favorite features of grasses is that they can grow tall and move in the wind. In containers, they often add height or contrast to draping and flowering annuals. Warm-season grasses seed out and provide winter interest, even if the foliage browns. They need shearing once a year in spring, a little water to jumpstart growth, and they’re off. If you choose one that’s not native to your area, such as the big-box store selection I found for my containers, make sure it can at least survive with less water or other conditions that differ. You might not get flowers or as much growth, but the grass will survive at least for the summer.

rush grass in container

I like to place ornamental grasses in container arrangements to add height and texture. This juncus is all I need to add interest to a petunia mix and continuity between the pots.

Another benefit of ornamental grasses is that they can serve practical purposes in a garden. Use them for erosion control by placing a small grouping at the bottom of a slope or terrace – and go for a medium-water selection such as Feather reed grass “Karl Foerster” (Calamagrostis arundinacea) here, since the rain or irrigation run-off from above supplies the extra water the plant requires.

feather reed grass

Karl Foerster feather reed grass that was planted a few weeks ago in our rock garden . It already looks great, but will add feathery blooms in summer. It should survive our winter (zones 5 and 6).

Other great locations for grasses are along steps, pathways or corners, in front of dark walls or fences, and anywhere they will catch sunlight and breezes.

Sedges, rushes and some hardy bamboos also fall into the ornamental grass category when landscaping. Just be sure to check the zone, native location of the plant, and especially the sun and water requirements before planting the grass. Some actually do better in marshes – not a good choice for xeriscaping!

Easy care

Grasses are among the easiest xeric plants you can have in your garden. They’re mostly free of pests and diseases. And although I love ornamental grasses, I have seen some gardens with only grasses and gravel. I think you need one or two other xeric plants to break up the look, but I’m not a professional landscaper. To my eye, just gravel and grass in a garden screams “dry!” It’ so easy to complement a low-water grass with a salvia, penstemon or gayfeather.

Some cool-season grasses bolt in the heat, but trimming off their seedheads can rejuvenate the plant, much like clipping off flowers of herbs to force growth back into leaves. Most ornamental grasses are warm-season selections, best planted in the spring. They need a little more water, up to once a week for xeric choices, for the first month or two. After that, water deeply only every few weeks or once a month in the hottest summer weeks. Some will spread, and it’s best to try to divide or dig up unwanted volunteers before they clump too tightly. Other than that, just cut back as directed. Allowing several grasses to overseed in winter could add to your fire hazard, so keep that in mind if you have them near your home or a commercial building.

big bluestem grass before strawbale wall

Newly constructed strawbale wall with xeric plantings. The big bluestem grass on the right foreground got much taller and flowered (see below).

A few xeric grasses

Silky threadgrass (Stipa tennuifolia). This hardy grass grows in all types of soil, uses little water, and loves full sun. That’s a bonus, since the silky seedheads reflect sunlight as they sway in the breeze. One caution for silky threadgrass is its high potential to reseed. That’s a plus in an untamed garden, but not in a more formal xeric landscape.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  This is one of our personal favorites. It can reach heights of four to five feet in summer, when it also rewards you with purplish flower spikes that emerge between the beautiful greenish-blue leaves. Some selections require more water than others, so check with the nursery or on the tag for details. Some are highly drought tolerant and thrive down to zone 4.

big bluestem flower heads

The flower stalks of big bluestem grass are purplish, contrasting well with the greenish-blue leaves.

Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisteum alopecuroides). Purple fountain grass (P. setaceum) is a particular favorite of these dwarf varieties, but only makes it as an annual in our zones (5 through 7). Others fare better, although an unusually cold winter could kill them. Most have bright green foliage with bottlebrush flowers. Examples are “Hamelin,” a compact, mounding variety with ivory and gold flowers and “Moudry,” which has brownish-black flowers. One caution: You might have to protect dwarf fountain grasses from rabbits if they visit your xeric garden.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Penstemon

The hummingbirds are swooping around the garden, and soon they will enjoy feeding off several water-wise Penstemon species. The penstemon, also called beardtongue, is a versatile low-water native plant in New Mexico and the Southwest.

In fact, penstemon does best with no added water at all. And the plants can thrive in full sun or light shade. Penstemon comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and bloom colors. But they have in common a slender trumpet-shaped flower that hummingbirds love.

purple penstemon

Hummingbirds love penstemon flowers, but can you also spot the bees in this photo?

Caring for penstemon

Penstemons usually prefer somewhat sandy or clay soil, and don’t need added compost. Most species of penstemon are perennial in our zone (6 to 7), but some are annuals. They’ll bloom from summer to frost. Species such as Arabesque Red bloom from summer through first frost with deadheading. However, if you leave some blooms on the plant, the seedheads ripen and break, which causes the plants to reseed. We’ve had several volunteers come up in our rock garden. And birds love the seeds!

red penstemon AAS regional winner

Arabesque Red was the regional winner (including the Mountain and Southwest regions) fof the All-America Selections in 2014. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, Inc.

The only way to really harm penstemon is to overwater or overnourish this easy-care plant. Use fine gravel for mulch. Occasionally, aphids gather on the stems, but you can use a fine mist of water to spray them off in the morning and check a few days later.

Penstemon can work well in containers, especially if you select a lower-growing variety. Select low-water companion plants, so that the penstemon does not receive too much water. If it does, it can become leggy. You might find that a penstemon in a clay pot needs occasional watering compared with one in your landscape.

In a xeric landscape

Penstemons are great plants for xeric landscapes. Low growers such as Desert beardtongue (P. pseudospectabilis) spread to about 15 inches wide and 30 inches high, with purple-maroon flowers on stalks above the blue-green foliage. The pineleaf penstemon (P. pinifolius) is a native wildflower with tiny needle-like leaves and bright orange-scarlet flowers. I love watching the hummingbirds maneuver effortlessly into the flowers.

pineleaf penstemon

Our pineleaf penstemon hasn’t flowered yet, but it’s still attractive, with the pine-like foliage and its low spreading nature.

A taller, lankier type such as Rocky Mountain beardtongue (P. strictus) looks gorgeous against a fence, wall or tall rock. Its purple flowers contrast nicely with yellow or white bloomers in the foreground. The bushier pineleaf or Desert beardtongues are perfect to tuck in a corner, or along a step or walkway.

desert beardtongue penstemon

The Desert Beardtongue is a 2015 Plant Select winner. Photo by Bill Adams and courtesy of Plant Select.

No matter which variety of penstemon you choose, you’ll be rewarded by hummingbird guests and the beautiful blooms that appear with very little care on your part!